Monday, April 11, 2005

A Quality Life

Mark 9:33-37 (New International Version)

Who is Greatest?

33 “They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

I read an interesting piece in yesterday’s Kansas City Star about a fella’ named Eric Tinderholt. Eric’s a greeter at the Wal-Mart at 117th and Metcalf, about three or four miles south of downtown Kansas City. What made it especially interesting for me is that Nancy and I both know Eric. We all attended Broadway Baptist Church back in the eighties, and for several years Nancy and Eric were in the same “home group.”

The title of the piece was “In his wishes he goes where his body can’t.” It was about how Eric deals on a daily basis with the limitations cerebral palsy. By and large it was a nice piece, providing a short glimpse into the life of a really good man.

About midway through the story there was a vivid description of a typical start to Eric’s days:

“Just having to fight his body every day tires him. Mornings, he wakes from one of his baseball dreams and his joints feel like rusted door hinges on a winter’s day. He meditates, tries to loosen his body. Relax. Get his knees to bend, his feet to move.”

“Oh man, I don’t feel like doing this again, he’ll say to himself.”

“He wishes there were an easier way. It can take so long. He has used his shower hundreds of times without a problem. But the other day he got stuck for a while. He couldn’t get his feet over the ledge to get out. He has to deal with all this junk, and there’s a lot of junk that goes along with cerebral palsy. That’s just the way it is.”

Malcolm Garcia, who wrote the piece, captured one of the special things I remember about Eric – his love of the New York Yankees. The next to last paragraph begins and ends with rhetorical questions:

“Know what he’d like to do? If he were healed, he’d call the Yankees. I just got healed today, he’d say, and I want to come down and try out. Really. Without hesitation. Wouldn’t matter if he was 99. He’d do it. Just to know what it was like to move his arms, legs, chest, neck, and head. To hold a bat. To strike the ball. To run the bases. To know that kind of power. To feel that kind of grace.”

“He knows it won’t happen, but wouldn’t it be something if it did?”

It’s been close to a quarter of a century since I’ve seen Eric, but as soon as I read the story I could see, in my mind’s eye, Eric adorned in that Yankees cap and jacket, a broad, toothy smile etched on his face. I recall our baseball discussions. As you might know, I’m an inveterate Red Sox fan. My passion for my beloved Sox mixed with his passion for his equally beloved Bronx Bombers made for interesting Sunday morning small talk. It was Mantle and Ruth and Berra and Dimaggio and Murderer’s Row on one side of the aisle and Teddy Ballgame and “Yaz” and “Pudge” Fisk’s flair for the dramatic on the other.

Beyond the passion we each shared for our team, though, there was something much more passionate that we held in common. It was our Christian faith. It was a constant, a rock that cemented our relationship. By outward appearances Eric and I did not appear to be equals. I could run the bases with grace back then. For Eric it was a physical impossibility. I was then, as I am now, “able bodied.” Eric had, and still has, physical limitations. My walk is upright, my gait is strong. Eric has to lurch from place to place, using canes to provide some measure of stability. But in God’s economy we were, and are, equals. In fact, I learned that in many ways he was my better. His was a child-like faith. And I also learned from those encounters that there’s a different kind of grace that rules the Kingdom of God. It’s the kind of grace that elevates the humble and resists the proud.

The inner man is hard to capture on paper, but I think Malcolm Garcia did a pretty good job. As I read, paragraph by paragraph, I could see Eric’s perpetual smile; I could hear his always upbeat words. They were never missing, even in the face of adversity, and sometimes scorn. Garcia described a recent encounter at Eric’s appointed post this way:

“Recently, a teenager strutted into Wal-Mart, stared at Eric and started stuttering. He jerked his body and arms into odd contortions, waved limp hands in Eric’s face and laughed.”

“Listen, sir.” Eric said as straight as he could. “This is my job. I’m glad I can do it. I’m proud I can do it.”

The story of Eric Tinderholt comes at an interesting time for me. For the past two months or so I’ve seen fault lines developing in the Christian blogosphere. I think that some of the philosophy afoot today in this new element is much like that of the teenager who taunted Eric. The issue that’s creating the fissure, in one form or another is the value of human life. There’s one side that disdains the Wal-Mart lifestyle. For them, I suspect, a purposeful life is one that begins with poached eggs and the New York Times in the morning and ends with steak tar tare and zinfandel at the Tavern on the Green at night. “Life,” they posit, “Must have qualities like these to be meaningful.” Someone like Eric could never become the maitre d’ at the Tavern on the Green. Oh, he might be able to send a resume. They would see his degree in English and profess some interest. But if they saw him lurching around it would be too much. Quality people eating quality meals don’t need to see things like that. That’s Wal-Mart stuff. Eric belongs on that lower rung of their social ladder.

The outward trappings of this new thinking are bad enough, but I’ve really been shaken by its theological dimensions as well. Once quality of life has been defined in those terms I believe the theology then goes haywire. It will have all the trappings of theological correctness. The doctrine will be pure, unassailable. But once the door is opened all you can see are empty hearted men beating on tin drums. The words on the surface are polished, studied, measured, thoughtful, “deep.” But inside, as the Master said, these are men inwardly full of “dead men’s bones.

As Bob Dylan put it many years ago, the engine of society is revving up. The men with the straight teeth and crooked smiles are talking quality and folks are listening. The quality people are taking us into a new world of quality and meaning. Quality is in. Eric Tinderholt is out. Steak tar tare is in. Wal-Mart is out.

Dylan saw it all coming, the place where the engine of quality overrules the heart:

“The glamour and the bright lights and the politics of sin,
The ghetto that you build for me is the one you end up in,
The race of the engine that overrules your heart,
Ooh, I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it,
Pretending that you’re so smart.”

“Dead man, dead man,
When will you arise?
Cobwebs in your mind,
Dust upon your eyes.”

The boy’s with the straight teeth and the crooked smiles can’t see it. They’re eyes are firmly fixed on quality of life. And so, like blind guides, they’re leading us over the precipice. I guess I should be consoled. In the end it won’t be a low end Wal-Mart death. It’ll be a “quality” death, ending in dignified fashion, with steak tar tare and zinfandel at the Tavern on the Green.

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